The World

Does China Back Up Its Dalai Lama Threats?

The world’s most awkward guest.

Photo by Jim Watson/AFP/Getty Images

President Obama is holding a meeting with the Dalai Lama at the White House today, and not surprisingly, Beijing is displeased:

“The U.S. leader’s planned meeting with Dalai is a gross interference in China’s domestic politics,” said Hua Chunying, a spokeswoman for China’s Foreign Ministry. “It is a severe violation of the principles of international relations. It will inflict grave damages upon the China-U.S. relationship.”

The White House clearly anticipated this reaction, announcing the meeting only last night. Hopefully this year, they can avoid the unfortunate optics of 2010 (above), when the Tibetan spiritual leader was photographed coming out of a back entrance of the White House past piles of trash.


China issues a nearly identical statement of outrage every time a foreign head of state meets with the Dalai Lama, but does it ever follow through on its claims that bilateral relations will be seriously damaged? According to one analysis, it does, but not for very long.


Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann of the University of Göttingen published a paper in 2010 looking at the effect of Dalai Lama meetings on bilateral trade. Looking at “exports to China from 159 partner countries between 1991 and 2008,” they did find evidence of “trade-deteriorating effect” following meetings between the Dalai Lama and heads of state. (Meetings with lower-ranking officials didn’t have any effect.)

Specifically, “exports to China are found to decrease by 8.1 percent or 16.9 percent” as a result of meetings, however, the effect disappears within two years of the meeting taking place, and primarily affects only “machinery and transport equipment.”


It’s worth noting that the analysis looked only at the Hu Jintao years. It’s not yet clear whether Xi Jinping’s government will take these gestures quite as seriously. It also seems unlikely that the U.S.-China trade relationship—one of the world’s largest—will be affected to the same extent. As Lily Kuo points out, previous meetings between the Dalai Lama and U.S. leaders don’t seem to have had much of an impact.

But the overall takeaway of the analysis is that China does indeed take these meetings very seriously, but isn’t willing to let them get in the way of doing business for very long.